Vietnam

When a Mash Note to a War Criminal Hit the Top 40

Friday A/V Club: My Lai's musical apologists

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Quickit Publishing

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, in which a group of American soldiers slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. You can read more about that grisly episode in Lucy Steigerwald's story on the subject, posted elsewhere on this site today. I just want to highlight something Lucy mentioned in passing as she described the trial of Lt. William Calley, the one man convicted for his role in the crime. Back in the U.S., she writes, "Calley became a twisted sort of folk hero."

It's true. The most infamous of the killers in one of America's most infamous war crimes had a cheering section in the States. No, not everyone: Of course many Americans were revolted by the rapes and murders at My Lai. But then there were the people who told themselves a different story about what had happened. The people who made a gold record and a top 40 hit of a deeply dishonest apologia called the "Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley."

"Battle" was written by Julian Wilson and James Smith, a couple of businessmen from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and it was recorded by a DJ named Terry Nelson at FAME Studios, the legendary birthplace of dozens of soul, pop, and country hits. Tex Ritter was going to release a version of the song too, but the higher-ups at Capitol Records decided that would be a bad idea. ("[I]f we want to glorify a war hero," one executive told Billboard, "let's find someone other than Lt. Calley.") The folks at Plantation Records had no such scruples, and they put out Nelson's recording right after Calley was convicted:

"I'm just another soldier from the shores of U.S.A.," the song's Calley declares, even if "they've made me out a villain, they have stamped me with a brand." The real villains are elsewhere: "While we're fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street/While we're dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat/While we're facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat." In real life, My Lai was an assault on unarmed civilians. In the song, "We responded to their rifle fire with everything we had."

The rifle fire may be imaginary, but I guess the "everything we had" part was true:

Ronald L. Haeberle

The record peaked at #37 on the Billboard charts. To hear Casey Kasem introducing it on American Top 40—right after a snappy little number called "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People"—go to the 2:28 mark here. For seven more pro-Calley songs (and one anti-anti-Calley song), go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

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  1. The reason why so many people had a problem with the prosecution of Cally was that there was no reciprocity by the North Vietnamese. What happened at Mi Lai was remarkable because the Americans did it. If the North Vietnamese had done it, it would have been known as Tuesday. And the American public rightfully wondered why we are sending this guy to jail when the enemy does the same thing all of the time and gets away with it. It is human nature and why countries totally ignoring the law of war is such a problem. It makes it harder for the countries fighting them to hold their people accountable for violating it.

    The other thing was that the Army really did scapegoat him. Mi Lai didn’t happen because one Captain went crazy. The people above him were responsible as well. Either they ordered him to do it or did nothing to stop him. Either way, they were responsible as well. But the Army let all of them walk and pretended the whole thing was because one Captain decided to murder people. Again, that offended people’s sense of fairness.

    1. And the American public rightfully wondered why we are sending this guy to jail when the enemy does the same thing all of the time and gets away with it

      That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

      1. That is not how it is supposed to work. That is, however, how it does work human nature being what it is. I don’t know what to tell you. This is how people are. They don’t like seeing their side held to standards the other side is not. If you don’t like it, go live in another universe because that is the way this one works.

        1. Perhaps it’s a bad choice of words, then, to say “rightfully.”

    2. The other thing was that the Army really did scapegoat him.

      This was a popular stance on the left as well as the right. Benjamin Spock, for example, argued that “one man is being made to pay for the brutality of the whole war.” Whether or not you buy that, I think it’s qualitatively different from the outright pro-Calley position.

      1. Calley was not a scapegoat for the whole war, because most American units never did anything like this.But he certainly appears to be a scapegoat for several levels in the chain of command above him in _that_ operation – many of them literally hovering above him in helicopters. I noted that Calley relied on the defense counsel provided him by the Army, an Army officer who did not press to prove that Calley received orders to kill civilians because an Army officer should understand that such an order is illegal and must not be followed. So with not only plenty of testimony about the massacre, but photos published in Life magazine, Calley really had no defense and was convicted and sentenced to a long time in prison. But he should not have been the only one…

        Calley’s immediate superior Captain Medina, who could hardly have been unaware of what Calley’s unit was doing without being grossly derelict of duty and not even present when his company was in action, hired a civilian lawyer, who was ready to press a “just following orders” defense, right up to General Westmoreland. Legally, even if Medina had a video of Westmoreland personally ordering him to kill everyone in the village (and obviously he didn’t), all that should have meant under the law is that Westmoreland should be in prison alongside Medina, But suddenly the charges against Medina evaporated, as if someone did not want the culpability of higher command explored in court.

      2. I also recall that a Congressional Committee chairman effectively blocked the prosecution of any enlisted men, and made the prosecution of officers more difficult, by refusing to release the testimony of those enlisted men to their defense attorneys and the prosecution. They had a right to review transcripts of their previous testimony in preparation for any further legal action, and if they couldn’t get the trascripts, there could be no further legal action concerning these men.

    3. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did horrible things to Vietnamese people and Americans.

      I dislike John McCain but his is living proof of what torture and mistreatment can produce. His arms is all fucked up. He was injured after his jet was hit and he ejected parachuting to the ground. He was treated better than most American POWs because his daddy was an admiral and the NVA thought they could use him for propaganda purposes.

      Lefties in the USA had really stepped up opposition to the war in 1968 and even said that the Tet Offensive was an American defeat which it wasn’t. The Mai Lai massacre was just one more tool used by useful idiots to get the Americans out of Vietnam.

      With all that being said, I think it was a mistake for the USA to get involved in Vietnam.

    4. The man knowingly killed civilians. He deserved to be thrown in prison for the remainder of his life and the next. Just because the rest of the participants in this pernicious act escaped the gavel (And believe me, I wish they didn’t.) doesn’t mean the man can exonerated from his awful deeds.
      War is awful. The Vietnam war was especially awful. Shit happens in the veil of war, but that doesn’t excuse this.
      You need to rethink your life, John.

      1. The Mongols carved out an empire slaughtering everyone who slightly opposed them. Vespasian sold into slavery or killed all the Jews who rebelled against Rome. The Brits would fire on unarmed protestors to prove a point. American settlers torched Native American settlements when they were attacked.

        There is a wall and this wall surrounds America, Europe, Japan, and even countries like China now. You have been living under the protection of this wall for so long now that you have forgotten that it is there, you have forgotten it exists, you have fooled yourself into thinking moralify is a thing that exists outside this wall and not just inside it. When this wall collapses one day (it always does) do not be surprised at the way the world will change for you.

        1. Yes, I read a history textbook before. This doesn’t excuse the actions of the men who massacred innocents.

      2. Y’all might wanna re-read his post.

        And, well, the idea that the Vietnam war was “especially awful” compared to war in general is … difficult to substantiate, especially in the implied context of “American actions specifically”.

        (War is, indeed, awful, no argument.

        But you’ll note that Calley got sent to prison for killing civilians, and did so without any orders or authorization as such.

        More awful wars tend to involve such behavior being rewarded, and commanded from on high.

        [I mean, Jesus Christ, to call out Vietnam as “especially awful” suggests either huge blind spots or utter ignorance of, say, Japan’s actions in the entirety of WW2 and its prelude.

        We can leave out the Nazis here for the most part because their atrocities weren’t strictly part of their warfighting; thus “crimes against humanity” vs. “against the laws and traditions of war”.])

        1. Y’all might wanna re-read his post.
          I did; however, my opinion has not changed. He’s saying just because the North did awful shit means that the public shouldn’t have standards by which to judge the men and boys they send to war. This is something I cannot agree with. If this were the case of killing people because you thought you or your comrades were in danger; that’s fine. Another good reason is your CO coercing into doing something you wouldn’t otherwise. I can’t completely blame a man if his chain of command is coming down on him.

          With respect to me referring to the Vietnam War as “especially awful,” I did not give proper context for that, and that’s my fault. What I mean is the actions taken place by these United States during the war were ill-advised, negligent, and sometimes awful.

          I’m also well aware of the abhorrent actions take by a lot of nations, but again, that doesn’t excuse bad decisions by the army and its personnel. I’ll criticize all morally reprehensible behavior by any nation.

    5. “The reason why so many people had a problem with the prosecution of Cally was that there was no reciprocity by the North Vietnamese. ”

      You mean why so many American people had a problem, I doubt the Vietnamese worried much about the fate of Cally. They were playing for keeps.

      “If the North Vietnamese had done it, it would have been known as Tuesday.”

      Is there even one example of North Vietnamese doing what the Americans did in My Lai? Is this something you’ve made up or heard somewhere?

      1. “Is there even one example of North Vietnamese doing what the Americans did in My Lai? Is this something you’ve made up or heard somewhere?”

        The Massacre at Hue, in which the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong murdered anywhere between 2800 and 6000 civilians: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_at_Hu?

        1. The Americans at My Lai weren’t killing collaborators, informers, and the like. Indiscriminate killing of innocents is how it’s typically described, an army out of control. That wasn’t Hue, and the Vietnamese would have little or no motivation to wage a terror campaign against the Vietnamese people.

          1. “the [North] Vietnamese would have little or no motivation to wage a terror campaign against the Vietnamese people”

            Except to, you know, intimidate them for strategic purposes, undermine support for the South Vietnamese government and United States, and other obvious motivations.

            (Equally, on Hue: being of military age or a class enemy (“looking prosperous”) seems to have sufficed for the ideological Communists in question.

            In other contexts, as well – “you fled from our villages? we’ll kill you all” is a war crime, and not “informers and collaborators”, which is not exactly a great excuse anyway.

            Let’s not pretend the Viet Cong were “the Vietnamese” as some Pure Representation Of Vietnam, or that they were anything but murderous, brutal Communists, okay?

            1. Hue was about killing enemies. That is not My Lai.

          2. You’re assuming then that Mai Lai residents were not informers, collaborators, and the like.

            You know nothing of the North Vietnamese tactics to think they no incentive to wage a terror campaign against the South Vietnamese people.

            North Vietnamese soldiers and VC murdered innocent Laotians, Cambodians, and their own Vietnamese people.

            1. Are you talking about Hue? It seems that collaborators etc were specifically targeted for elimination. Unlike My Lai.

          3. “That wasn’t Hue, and the Vietnamese would have little or no motivation to wage a terror campaign against the Vietnamese people.”

            I know more about the modern day than Vietnam. In Afghanistan the US and Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol the cities during the day. At night the Taliban rolls in and kills collaborators or minorities. The USA/ANA police during the day, go back to their bases at night. The Taliban comes out at night and polices the same territory then goes back to their holes during the day.

            In Iraq, Zarqawi explicitly was trying to wage a terror campaign to incite Sunnis to not only fight Shia, but to distrust the United States so deeply it would push Sunni Iraqis to join Al-Qaeda in Iraq as the only people who could protect them from violence.

            There are like five million reasons for the Vietcong to wage a terror campaign, you are not thinking very hard if you cannot think of any.

            1. “There are like five million reasons for the Vietcong to wage a terror campaign, you are not thinking very hard if you cannot think of any.”

              Hue is not an example of a terror campaign but reprisals after fighting and eliminating enemies. My Lai was indiscriminate. Had they been killing enemies at My Lai, we wouldn’t be discussing it today.

      2. Read Professor R J J Rummel’s research. He has documented many incidents of North Vietnamese atrocities, He estimates the total as close to a million. For instance, Viet Cing policies of simply killing the top 10% of villagers as class enemies.


    6. If the North Vietnamese had done it, it would have been known as Tuesday. And the American public rightfully wondered why we are sending this guy to jail when the enemy does the same thing all of the time and gets away with it.

      Because it simply means that if we’re going to do the same thing, why are we even there in the first place when arguably we’re no better than our enemy? If we rape and kill unarmed civilians, than really it’s pretty rich that we would be upset because of raped and killed unarmed civilians unless you want to make the argument that we rape fewer innocent people and kill fewer civilians, but that’s a line of argument that leads you to some bad places if you don’t prosecute your people.

      A sense of fairness is to string up war criminals, no matter who’s side they might be on.

      You could very well be correct regarding American sentiment towards Cally, but what that actually reveals isn’t something nice about America.

    7. You mother must have been an idiot, because a proper mother would have taught you that just because the other guy did it does NOT make it right for you to do it.

      “Just because the Viet Cong are murdering civilians does not make it right for you to murder civilians.”

      1. I like how we barely reach the low bar of Viet Cong morality and some people apparently think that’s okay.

    8. Translation: Et tu, Quoque?!

  2. So, part of the problem with the song was that it was
    an anti-anti-war song? To be fair, the success of the anti-war movement was a key component to the Communist’s strategy.

    1. It’s got a good beat, easy to dance to… I like it! Pass the Girl Scout beanie for the banjo picker…

  3. Wait. So now we’re talking about Lucy again?

  4. I think this is typical of culture war dynamics. If one side thinks he’s a villain, the other side wants to believe he’s a hero (and visa versa)–for that reason alone.

    I’ve referred to this as Jane Fonda Syndrome around here in the past. She started out with some reasonable opposition to the war. Over time, she seems to have become convinced that Uncle Ho was the good guy to the point that she ended up posing on North Vietnamese AA guns and vouching for the good treatment of American POWs, who were actually being tortured. Her actions probably had to do with lashing out at the squares of Nixon’s Silent Majority more than anything else–even if she didn’t realize it.

  5. How many people base their opinions on global warming on what the culture war folks on the other side of the debate are saying? I admit it myself–if the socialists on the other side of the debate were right about AGW, I wouldn’t want to believe it. My girlfriend often can’t understand facts that don’t support what she wants to do. It’s a cognitive bias or human nature or something. You gotta learn to check yourself.

    Always check if the point you’re arguing is crucial to your position, and if it isn’t, realize that it can be conceded without losing the argument behind it. IF IF IF I’d support the Second Amendment–even if gun control meant less violent crime or fewer mass shootings–then I don’t need to go to the wall over any statistics. My opposition to socialism and socialist solutions does not depend on scientific observations of our climate. whatever the topic, IF IF IF you can support your version of the Vietnam War anyway–despite something like My Lai–then there is no need to go to the wall for someone like Lt. Calley.

    1. “IF IF IF you can support your version of the Vietnam War anyway–despite something like My Lai–then there is no need to go to the wall for someone like Lt. Calley.”

      Using terror tactics against the Vietnamese, like Calley was involved in, may have been America’s best chance of crushing resistance. Lavish bribes to Southern generals and other half-hearted measures is not going to defeat a determined enemy.

      1. There are other arguments one might use–such as that the mistakes and evil actions of a few shouldn’t dissuade us from the greater goal of keeping as much of the world as possible safe from authoritarian communism.

        Mind you, I’m not even talking about a position I hold myself. I’m saying this is true of any position.

        I might argue that winning the Vietnam War wasn’t crucial to our winning the Cold War against communism. In the world of the culture war of the 1960s and early 1970s, a lot of people didn’t think it was possible to really oppose communism if you were against the Vietnam War–when in reality, as history shows, the Vietnam War wasn’t absolutely crucial to the argument against communism at all.

        1. “the Vietnam War wasn’t absolutely crucial to the argument against communism at all.”

          It was a war of national liberation, or anti-colonialism. They called themselves the NLF, National Liberation Front, and there were communists among them, but lots of others too, even Buddhist monks. It wasn’t a war against communism, as both sides attempted to exploit serious rifts within the communist bloc.

          1. Lird knows, it’s illegal to call yourself the National Liberation Front if you aren’t one.

        2. Translation: Dictatorial Catholic altruists deserve our help to murder Buddhist altruists (and their children) on the other side of the planet. This is the mindset that brings us to shoot-first prohibitionism over plant leaves.

      2. The United States did defeat the North Vietnamese, and did so after jailing Calley. (Remember, his actions weren’t policy.)

        As of the Paris treaty in 1973, there were no NVA in South Vietnam, the VC were long destroyed as an operational force, and the RVN forces were holding the ground quite adequately.

        It took Congress de-funding their air support and refusing to oblige retaliation to breaking the Paris treaty for the North to win.

        1. Correct. There was not punishment to North Vietnam breaking the Paris treaty of 1973 and the USSR just gave the NVA massive amounts of material to finish South Vietnam off.

        2. Why would the south need American air support if the enemy had been defeated?

  6. It’s not Coward of the County, I’ll tell you that.

    1. Pet theory: “Coward of the County” marked the beginning of the death of the Vietnam Syndrome.

      1. Kenny Rogers in many ways was the beginning of a time of healing in this wounded nation.

    2. THAT playing on Redneck Radio every 10 minutes was the worst part about Holy War Bush bombing the other side of the planet!

  7. If people think innocent people in Vietnam were not bombed into bits, then they have no clue how war works.

    With that being said, Americans don’t rape, shoot unarmed, or torture people. That is what separates us from the socialist Nazis, Communists, and other lefty fascist fuckers who keep starting wars with the USA. Any American who does those things should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the UCMJ.

    1. The murder of civilians was why Valley was tried and prosecuted. When that happens it is considered a war crime and against US policy. But as John pointed out, with the Viet Conf, it WAS the policy.

      1. Calley. Stupid spellcheck

    2. “With that being said, Americans don’t rape, shoot unarmed, or torture people.”

      Who needs to when we can outsource this to the locals? All the gain, none of the bad publicity.

      Highest historical recipients of US aid
      1) Israel
      2) Egypt

      Not exactly nice guys. One is totalitarian, the other has to be the most unpopular government on the planet for being so militarily aggressive. War and power politics are dirty, there is no reason to pretend morality exists at that level.

    3. Germans are right now reading a popular book saying that US troops raped large numbers (I forget the exponent) of German girls aft er The Big One. You can find info on it over at the Germerica blog

  8. My country, right or wrong.

    How often has nationalism trumped (no pun intended) principles? People carve out exceptions for their own Team and there appears to be no limit to what they’ll attempt to rationalize. Murder…torture…it’s all justified if the “good guys” are doing it.

    1. It’s an unfortunate reality. This is simply the reality of us being human, but I still cannot condone this behavior–especially if it’s my own country.

    2. Interestingly, the wartime volume of Letters of George Orwell, pagan Socialist, was titled “My Country Right or Left!” So Stalin or Hitler, whatever initiation of force is handy, Brit and Eurotrash socialists (and way too many Murrican vidiots) are still cheering for that…

  9. This is horribly reminiscent of George Orwell’s satirical depiction of memsahib hagiography surrounding General Reginald Dyer’s similar (though much larger) mass shooting of innocents at Amritsar in 1919. In “Burmese Days,” a bunch of British bureaucrats and imperial hangers-on sing the praises of Dyer for murdering close to a thousand of the n-word subjects of the British Raj. These events happen wherever there is no Second Amendment, and inspire nationalist collectivist doggerel instead of indignant student protests. Le plus ?a change…

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